UFC 121 is an event in which two former collegiate wrestling superstars will clash in a highly regarded Heavyweight Title main event. Brock Lesnar was a D1 National Champion, and while such credentials are not unprecedented in our sport, he's arguably the highest pedigree of pure athlete among his peers. It makes one reflect on the emergence of true athletes in MMA and how long it will take for talented preteen and teen athletes to start dreaming of fighting in the bright lights of the UFC, before the time they are forced to make such decisions by a lack of professional options. It seems quite possible that that time is now; (emphasis mine)
When Division I football coaches called, Joel Bauman listened. But the sport didn't fit into his plan -- to become the greatest fighter in the world.
So Bauman, who rushed for 2,941 yards as a high school junior at Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg in west-central Minnesota in 2008, pursued his other love -- wrestling.
The Gophers freshman, a two-time prep state champion, would love to earn a few titles in college, but he ultimately chose the sport because he said he believes it will prepare him for a career in mixed martial arts (MMA).
It's a familiar path through an expanding pipeline for Minnesota-based wrestlers who strive to emulate the success of former Gophers star and current Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) heavyweight champ Brock Lesnar.
"It's really cool because it just gives you hope that there's something out there," Bauman said about Lesnar's accomplishments in MMA. "I love wrestling and it's my passion, but in the back of my mind I always have, 'Be the best fighter, be the best fighter.'"
Bauman is quite possibly a product of the local culture. Lesnar is already a folk hero around Minnesota and mixed martial arts is huge business in the metro area. But this thought process is undeniably becoming more commonplace with youngsters like Joel, and MMA is becoming firmly ingrained into the culture of football in America. Not only are former players testing the waters of MMA (Brendan Schaub, Matt Mitrione, et al), but current NFL players and even collegiate players are integrating mixed martial arts training into their programs. Take, for instance, Heisman Trophy winning Oklahoma running back DeMarco Murray;
Oklahoma strength coach Jerry Schmidt's rigorous workouts are legendary. So when running back DeMarco Murray said mixed martial arts training was as grueling as anything he's experienced, that's a strong statement.
Murray and OU teammate Quinton Carter both raved about the benefits gained from working with MMA trainers in Las Vegas during their spring break in May.
"It was definitely a good thing," Murray said. "I was never that tired. It definitely got my conditioning level and stamina up."
Murray, who is a huge fan of Ultimate Fighting Championship, said he has a friend who owns a gym in Las Vegas, his hometown.
"Q and I did it the entire break," Murray said. "Conditioning-wise it's a different kind of conditioning. You're using your whole body, using muscles I had never worked before until I did the boxing. It was a great workout."
Murray and his teammates have sought this training independently, credence to the notion that athletes, even at the most elite level (Murray is the #1 ranked pro prospect at RB and between #1 and #8 overall, depending on the source), shadow box in the secrecy of their bedrooms, thinking "What if?". Granted, we are still in an age where these young men are likely to pursue their most financially gratifying professional option. The inroads to higher profitability of MMA fighters is a different conversation altogether, but the convergence of eventual high-end paydays with American athletes dreaming about fighting can only mean big things for the future of our sport. Randy Couture and Jay Glazer provide a training regimen for NFL players. Some of these men may have no real interest in mixed martial arts, but most certainly have an interest in the balance, core body strength and extremity coordination the training instills.
The Atlanta Falcons became the first NFL team to start a team-sponsored MMA program, hiring a new company founded by UFC star Randy Couture.
The Detroit Lions hired Luigi Gjokaj, a local pro boxer, to work with dozens of their players during the off-season.
"It doesn't surprise me," said OU defensive coordinator Brent Venables. "If you've ever wrestled somebody or you've ever gotten into a fight, it doesn't take long to get winded. You get out there rag-dolled a little bit, I can imagine it would pay bid dividends."
Dana White once remarked that in a decade's time, MMA will be the biggest sport in the world. His reasoning is that fighting is animalistic and that humans, at their core, can relate to hand to hand combat on a more intimate level than any athletic competition involving various artificial implements. The truth is, in that respect-- he's right. Before most any adolescent boy lays hands on a baseball, he shadow boxes an invisible ninja, or puts a cat in an arm bar.
As a football player, Demarco Murray may not necessarily fantasize about dunking a basketball-- but he most certainly dreams about throwing an overhand right. Prospective D1 football players, like Bauman, are already letting those thoughts determine their future.
"Wrestling has never had a pro facet to it and that's what MMA is becoming," Robinson said.
And that's exactly why Bauman joined the Gophers.
"Oh yeah, that's my dream," he said. "Be the best fighter in the world. That's what I tell these guys all the time."